Political scientists have classified governments into unitary and federal on the basis of the nature of relations between the national government and the regional governments. By definition, a unitary government is one in which all the powers are vested in the national government and the regional governments, if at all exist, derive their authority from the national government. A federal government, on the other hand, is one in which powers are divided between the national government and the regional governments by the Constitution itself and both operate in their respective jurisdictions independently. Britain, France, Japan, China, Italy, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Spain and so on have the unitary model of government while the US, Switzerland, Australia, Canada, Russia, Brazil, Argentina and so on have the federal model of government. In a federal model, the national government is known as the Federal government or the Central government or the Union government and the regional government is known as the state government or the provincial government.
The specific features of the federal and unitary governments are mentioned below in a comparative manner:
The term ‘federation’ is drived from a Latin word foedus which means ‘treaty’ or ‘agreement’. Thus, a federation is a new state (political system) which is formed through a treaty or an agreement between the various units. The units of a federation are known by various names like states (as in US) or cantons (as in Switzerland) or provinces (as in Canada) or republics (as in Russia).
A federation can be formed in two ways, that is, by way of integration or by way of disintegration. In the first case, a number of militarily weak or economically backward states (independent) come together to form a big and a strong union, as for example, the US. In the second case, a big unitary state is converted into a federation by granting autonomy to the provinces to promote regional interest (for example, Canada). The US is the first and the oldest federation in the world. It was formed in 1787 following the American Revolution (1775-83). It comprises 50 states (originally 13 states) and is taken as the model of federation. The Canadian Federation, comprising 10 provinces (originally 4 provinces) is also quite old—formed in 1867.
The Constitution of India provides for a federal system of government in the country. The framers adopted the federal system due to two main reasons —the large size of the country and its socio-cultural diversity. They realised that the federal system not only ensures the efficient governance of the country but also reconciles national unity with regional autonomy.
However, the term ‘federation’ has no where been used in the Constitution. Instead, Article 1 of the Constitution describes India as a ‘Union of States’. According to Dr B R Ambedkar, the phrase ‘Union of States’ has been preferred to ‘Federation of States’ to indicate two things: (i) the Indian federation is not the result of an agreement among the states like the American federation; and (ii) the states have no right to secede from the federation. The federation is union because it is indestructible.
The Indian federal system is based on the ‘Canadian model’ and not on the ‘American model’. The ‘Canadian model’ differs fundamentally from the ‘American model’ in so far as it establishes a very strong centre. The Indian federation resembles the Candian federation (i) in its formation (i.e., by way of disintegration); (ii) in its preference to the term ‘Union’ (the Canadian federation is also called a ‘Union’); and (iii) in its centralising tendency (i.e., vesting more powers in the centre vis-a-vis the states).